some examples

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Pet-Related Counselling

In a mobile society like ours, where we move from place to place, where we're far from family and friends, where we might not even know the names of our next-door neighbors, pets play an important and complex role in our lives.

We've all seen those articles reporting that pets are good for our health: pet owners are healthier, happier, live longer. Part of this is physical; walking the dog takes you out of the house into the fresh air. But there is more to it than this. Our pets give us unconditional love and are happy to see us when we come home, regardless of how we look, how we feel, or how successful (or unsuccessful) we are. At the same time, we are responsible for making sure that they are healthy and happy, too.

So what happens when - for one reason or another - we have to get rid of our pet? What happens when it gets sick? When it dies? When we can't afford expensive vet bills? When it's old and in pain and incontinent and we know it's time to do the humane thing and put it down? How do we deal with this side of pet ownership? And who can we talk to about it?

One example is Lisa. She was distraught. She had always felt that she could cope with anything, but now she didn't know what to do. Brad, her husband, had been promoted, which meant a move to the branch office in Australia in two months. This was the biggest move they had ever made, but she could deal with that - with the packing and organizing, even at such short notice. But what were they going to do with Jake, their nine-year-old lab-terrier mix? Could he survive such a long trip? What about quarantine?

There was no one she could talk to about it - no one who understood. Brad had never had pets and didn't see what the problem was. Last night he had lost his patience. "Get a grip, Lisa," he'd shouted. "It's just a dog! You can get another one once we're settled."

But Jake wasn't just a dog. She had gotten him from someone giving puppies away in a supermarket parking lot. He had been so tiny, he fit in the pocket of her coat. He'd been her companion during the loneliness of settling into new places, and he'd been part of the family longer than the two boys, who were five and three. How could she explain to them that Jake wasn't coming with them?

Jake walked over and nudged her with his nose, wagging his shaggy black tail in concern. As she looked down at his trusting face, his wiry muzzle, now beginning to turn gray, Lisa burst into tears. What was she going to do?

Pet-bereavement counseling is not a new field. Organizations like the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) or the Blue Cross have been around for years. As we have developed a better understanding of the significant role pets play in our lives, counselling related to pets has expanded to include a much broader range of pet-related problems. It can help with questions about the best kind of pet for your situation, when to get a pet, when to replace a pet, how to explain the death of a pet to a child. It can provide a place for us to talk about our feelings about our pets with someone who understands.

Lisa's situation is only one example. Let's take a look at John. John is in his mid-thirties, in a highly stressful business, fast-tracked in a successful career. He lives alone with a cat named Mitzi. Mitzi is only five, still young for a cat, but she was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition that requires surgery. John is worried sick about Mitzi and is having trouble dealing with the idea that he might lose her.

Mitzi had been a gift to him from his wife when she learned she was dying from cancer. "Mitzi will keep you company when I'm gone," she'd said as she handed him the cuddly, purring bundle of fur. And Mitzi had kept him company and had kept him from falling into "that black hole of despair," as he called it, after his wife died. Somehow he had managed to carry on, had missed very little work, and felt that he had come through that painful time quite well. But the thought of losing Mitzi was bringing back all the feelings of anguish and helplessness that he thought he had dealt with when his wife died. At times, he found himself almost in tears, and in fact, at the vet's office, he had lost control and started sobbing when the vet explained the risks of the surgery. He would do anything to make sure Mitzi was okay.

But how could he explain this to his boss? Their relationship was cordial and businesslike, with little room for personal exchanges. He remembered once overhearing her making fun of a male coworker who had chosen to extend his paternity leave. What would she think about taking time off for a cat, especially now, when there was the greatest demand at work?

John wondered where could he turn for help and support.

These situations may seem extreme, but they are not unusual. They are similar to the kinds of problems a pet-related counselor would often hear about, especially in an ex-pat community where family is far away, friends seem to pack up and leave at a moment's notice, and your pet is your most dependable companion and your best friend.

Photograph: Bernice Muntz and her rabbit, Diesel, doing a high-five, by Ronald van Driel
A version of this text was published in the summer 2009 issue of the ACCESS Magazine.